Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Milwaukee Believes Census Didn’t Count 15,800 Residents

City submitting formal challenge with more than $21 million in federal aid on the line.

By - Dec 20th, 2022 01:06 pm
Mayor Cavalier Johnson signs Milwaukee's 2020 census challenge. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Mayor Cavalier Johnson signs Milwaukee’s 2020 census challenge. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The City of Milwaukee is formally challenging the results of the 2020 U.S. Census that show the city’s population dropped 3%, from 594,833 to 577,235, since 2010. The city believes the correct total is 593,722.

“The Census is affecting Milwaukee in more than than just undercounting our residents,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson at a press conference Tuesday morning. There are millions of dollars on the line, city officials note.

Without a change in the total, the city would lose approximately $7 million in federal aid over the next decade and Milwaukee Public Schools would lose $14 million.

“We are here to set the record straight. Since 2010, the Milwaukee population has been relatively stable,” said Johnson, while flanked by a group of supporters.

The city’s case comes down to two key issues. “The Census Bureau undercounted housing units and overcounted vacant units,” said the mayor. “The reported 577,000 number was simply not accurate.”

The Census Bureau established its own list of 257,723 housing units as of April 1, 2020, but the city believes the correct figure is 260,132. The bureau does agree that the total number of units has increased since 2010, but consistent with longstanding national trends, says the average household size has been shrinking.

Complicating the city’s ability to explicitly identify the discrepancies between its figures and those of the bureau, the U.S. Census Bureau’s smallest reporting unit is a grouping of several city blocks known as “census block.” Milwaukee is divided into approximately 7,000 such units.

A team of Department of City Development and Department of Administration employees conducted what officials called a “thorough quality control check” of the city’s data. “During this process, it was discovered that likely errors in the Census Bureau’s final unit counts were fairly widespread,” says the city’s challenge letter. Issues were found throughout the city, but the issue was particularly significant in a number of near northside census blocks near W. Capitol Dr.

In addition to the number of housing units, the city is challenging the bureau’s report of the number of vacant units. The bureau reported 22,313 vacant housing units, while the United States Postal Service reported 18,258.

The State of Wisconsin has its own challenge which is likely to bolster the city’s population. A total of 700 inmates at the downtown jail were incorrectly reported as residents of the Milwaukee County House of Correction in suburban Franklin. In addition, a single apartment building with approximately 70 units is part of the city’s challenge, with Milwaukee officials believing it was incorrectly counted as part of the City of Glendale.

In aggregate, the four issues shortchange Milwaukee by 16,500 residents, says the city.

Complicating any census effort are the disparate response rates by different racial and ethnic communities.  The bureau, in a May publication, estimated it undercounted Black populations nationally by 3.3% and Hispanic/Latino populations by 4.99%. Milwaukee city officials applied those metrics to the city’s population demographics (39.4% Black, 19.9% Hispanic or Latino) to arrive at an estimate of 587,126. They say that figure, the Wisconsin Department of Administration’s Jan. 1, 2021 estimate of 587,976 residents and annual U.S. Census Bureau population estimates in excess of 590,000 show that the 577,000 figure is too low.

Congresswoman Gwen Moore and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin submitted a joint letter of support of the city’s challenge and encouraged the bureau to undertake a quick review. City officials said they didn’t have an estimate on when the bureau would review its challenge, but that it was in a queue of 40 to 50 other challenges, including those from Boston and Detroit.

Also joining Johnson at the press conference were Milwaukee Urban League head Eve Hall, Alderwoman JoCasta Zamarripa, Forward Latino president Darryl Morin, ElevAsian leader Erik Kennedy, Milwaukee NAACP leader Fred Royal, pastor Walter Lanier, African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin CEO Nikki Purvis and Department of Administration Commissioner Sharon Robinson.

The city last successfully challenged a U.S. Census Bureau figure in 2007. It challenged the estimated population of 573,358, with the bureau adjusting the figure to 602,782.

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